Dark Fire

By C.J. Sansom.

Matthew Shardlake is hired to deal with the case of Elizabeth Wentworth who has allegedly pushed her cousin, Ralph, down a well. The girl is entirely reticent and is likely to be pressed until Cromwell gives her a stay of torture because he needs Shardlake to investigate another matter.

To this end, Shardlake is joined by Jack Barak, one of Cromwell’s men to search for the Gristwood brothers, who have acquired the secret of Greek Fire, but who have been predictably murdered.

As Shardlake investigates this matter, he also gradually uncovers the truth about the Wentworth case, and while the conclusion to that is successful, the search for Greek Fire ends less well. Shardlake also acquires his Dr Watson in the form of Jack Barak.

Since the first volume, Sansom has got a bit more into his stride with Dark Fire, although that’s not to say there’s no repetitious vocabulary. Barak is prone to calling everyone “arseholes” (34 times).

Dark Fire also has a bit more energy as well. The introduction of Jack Barak gives the novel some dynamism which Dissolution lacked, and to the same end, setting the story in London supplies the book with a wider variety of locations than the monastery of Scarnsea in Dissolution.

Overall, this was enough to get me to buy the next book in the series, Sovereign.

Three book reviews

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Wolf Hall is the plump opening tale of Thomas Cromwell, and his rise from a child abused by a brutal father to one of Wolsey’s servants to one of the key players in the court of Henry VIII as the king pursues Anne Boleyn and breaks with the Catholic church.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically as someone of low estate who rises in the face of class prejudice from the likes of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. Sir Thomas More is an academic snob, who looks down his nose at those who are allegedly intellectually less capable than him. (I don’t know to what extent this is an accurate portrayal of More and his attitude towards others; nor do I know what his interactions with Cromwell were like; his character seems to be fictional, but it may be based in reality; More has always seemed to be someone who was at least admirable for standing up to the tyrannous Henry over his split with Rome.)

Although Wolsey fails to get Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and then fails to become the Pope to achieve the same end, Cromwell finds favour with the king and continues to rise even after his first master falls.

As others have noted, Mantel has this oblique style of writing where she starts talking about a character without stating which one. Most (all?) of the time, it’s Cromwell, but the style can be irritating because it’s unnecessarily obfuscatory, and apart from being a quirk, it seems to have nothing to recommend it. Whatever Mantel’s aim might have been, such vagueness soon loses its novelty value.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières.

I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin many years ago. De Bernières’s proclivity for sounding like the worst excesses of a Chinese SAT word-list book did not endear him to me and smacked of pretentiousness. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts was recommended to me by a colleague of mine, who handed me a battered volume.

The story is is a collage. Part of it is about a village which is likely to find itself targeted for having Com­mu­n­ist sympathies when it has no particular political inclinations. Part of it is about the clandestine programme of savage torture in the capital and the Disappeared. Part of it is about a band of guerrillas, and part of it is mystical and faerie tale like. But part of it is also de Bernières expostulating anthropologically about some aspect of South American society over many pages when a brief paragraph would have been sufficient.

The author also once again resorts to the pretentious style of writing of which he is so fond.

Sometimes the tale is amusing, and at other times, unremittingly grim. The title is really just there to catch the eye because Don Emmanuel’s nether parts don’t feature that much, and the war surrounding them comes to nothing.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts is a book which doesn’t appear to know what the author wants it to be. Perhaps a series of short stories might have been better.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.

Matthew Shardlake, like any good fictional ’tec, has a particular quirk, viz. he’s a hunchback.

His boss, Thomas Cromwell, sends him off to the monastery of Scarnsea where another of Cromwell’s people has been murdered. Shardlake arrives as a reformist with the dissolution of the place hanging over its head.

In best Inspector Morse style, there are two more murders, and the corpse of another victim, is dredged out of the fishpond. If that wasn’t enough, there are thuggish monks, gay monks, ethnic-minority monks, and a mad Carthusian to contend with as well.

Shardlake doggedly investigates the entire sorry affair while his zeal for reform is tempered by his experiences, including Cromwell’s indifference to admitting that the evidence against Mark Smeaton, the musician who was executed for allegedly bonking Anne Boleyn, was fabricated.

In his first book in the series, Sansom hasn’t quite got the style right. It feels clunky and clumsy as if he sat down at his desk one day and decided to have a crack at doing some creative writing. As well as his awkward style, Sansom has a tendency to repeat (novel) words in quick succession, which makes them stand out. I suppose it’s something that I latch onto because I see it so much in my pupils’ writing, and even though the word in question may not be significant, it sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. A little revision wouldn’t have hurt.

I’ve now moved on to the second book in the series. We’ll see whether Sansom’s writing improves with experience.

What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

via What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ.

One of the English B topics we do is language diversity. The book we use has several articles arguing that English may or may not retain its crown as, more or less, a global language. Mandarin is often touted as a possible successor, but I remain sceptical because China has none of the cultural clout globally that America does. At most, Mandarin may become a lingua franca among nations with less reputable regimes which are nominally cosy with China.

However, I’m less interested in this particular debate than I am in what Dr McWhorter has written in his article for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s start with my lead above.

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

Two thousand years ago, Germanic was a Sprachbund (which to all intents and purposes is pretty much any language with a minimal amount of dialectal variation). When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain in AD455, they were still speaking dialects of West Germ­anic, and wouldn’t be speaking Old English until sometime in the 7th century at the very earliest. Even then, the Anglo-Saxons could still have returned to the mainland Europe and have conversed with their continental cousins. St Boniface was the West Saxon who took Christianity to the German parts of the Frankish Empire in the middle of the 8th century (wikipedia).

Old English bristled with three genders, five cases and the same sort of complex grammar that makes modern German so difficult for us, but after the Vikings, it morphed into modern English, one of the few languages in Europe that doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects.

Five noun cases? Try four; and in the masculine and neuter, the nom­in­at­ive and accusative had merged. And if German has such a complex grammar, how on Earth do the Germans manage to acquire it at all? What about the Lithuanians, who have twice as many noun cases, or the Finns who have about four times as many? How do the Hungarians and Turks cope with all that agglutination? What about all those languages with noun incorporation?

As for the Vikings, they did have a lexical impact on English (e.g., leg, egg, skirt, they, their, them, though), but changes to English grammar came from within the language. The inflectional system of English was dying throughout the Old English period. Unlike Old High German and Old Saxon, Old English had reduced the present plural endings of the verb to -aþ, which was, in origin, the 3rd per­s­on ending.

The same applies to the effect of French on English. The lexicon may have been irrevocably altered, but the morphology and gram­mar of the language remained native. Whatever the source of continuous verb forms in Modern English (a feature which is not shared by any other continental European language), it cannot be Old Norse or Old French.1

Mandarin, Persian, Indonesian and other languages went through similar processes and are therefore much less “cluttered” than a normal language is.

A “normal language”? Does this mean that Mandarin, Persian, and Indonesian are all abnormal?

Even if much of the article is sound, it is statements such as these which undermine any pretension which McWhorter might have to academic rigour or merit.


1. Icelandic also has continuous verb forms, and such constructions can also be found in Italian, but have a much more limited scope. One possible areal feature of European origin in British English is the range of the perfect, which is wider than it is in American.